Tuesday, April 28, 2009

How to Stack a Deck

Last night I watched three episodes of a program called “Paranormal State.” It is billed as “true stories of a team of paranormal researches from the Pennsylvania State University Paranormal Research Society.”

One episode was of the variety I find most disturbing. It involved a young autistic boy. I won't examine that particular episode, but I'd like to offer the following:

Note to wack-a-loons: If you live your life in a state of paranoid freakout because you believe paranormal entities are trying to “get” you, don’t infect your kids with that fear. It’s not just a disservice, it’s mentally abusive to turn them into frightened little people who jump at shadows and every creak of an old home. If you’re truly that far out of touch with reality, do yourself a favor and buy new, because every pre-owned home or commercial building is going to come with some creaks and groans. A talk with a structural engineer, instead of a psychic, might do more good for you that you can imagine (even with your extreme level of fertile imagination). Freak yourself out till the ghosts come home, but don’t burden your kids with your personal, dysfunctional, mental baggage. I get that you “believe” it; that doesn’t make it sane.

In one of the episodes, I recall a woman was sleeping at her sister’s “haunted” house. She was in the haunted bedroom and felt a “presence” come out of the closet, approach the bed, and put pressure on her chest. She also heard toys moving in the closet.

Two words: Sleep Paralysis. It’s a condition, caused by a known malfunction of chemicals in the brain that are normally used to help regulate sleep and waking. It can cause, not surprisingly, feelings of a person/people in the room, auditory and visual hallucinations, and feelings of pressure on the chest, along with fear. It’s a common event, but it is not unheard of for an individual to have episodes only rarely. I have had episodes. And before I learned what it was I just called it that “thing where you can’t wake up.” The majority of the people I’ve mentioned it to respond with “Oh yeah, I think I’ve had that.” I’m guessing that this particular woman probably had her first episode (or first memorable episode) in this house, and due to the stories she’d heard, misattributed the incident to ghosts.

It was the final program, though, that really left me slack-jawed.

It was a historic Gettysburg home in a state of disrepair when it was purchased by a couple who intended to use it as a bed and breakfast. They put a lot of money into renovations, but didn’t really provide a detailed run down of what work had been done—what had been replaced, updated or renovated, and what parts of the home were still original. This information, I thought, should be significant if I’m investigating possible causes of unexplained noises in a home. Gettysburg, in case anyone isn’t familiar, was the scene of a lot of historic bloody battles and death. So, no surprise there are local tales of hauntings. And no surprise that the “psychic” who was brought in felt pain in his gut, saw blood and death, and believed someone there might have suffered a gunshot wound. Impressed?

Other than the minor creaks and cricks that any older home would produce, there were two really great clues that went negligently uninvestigated, which might have resulted in some solid answers and helped these homeowners out significantly. (Or, if they were investigated, the show failed to demonstrate it or mention it.)

First of all, this house presented the paranormal team with a tremendous opportunity to figure out what was happening—whether ghost or not. That opportunity was blown, blown, and blown again. But here’s what happened: Every morning at 3:02 a.m., on the money, the entire house “shudders.” This was caught on both video and audio. The concierge was the one who pinpointed the consistency of the event, and sure enough, 3:02 a.m.: brrruuumpty-bumpity-brump went rolling through the rooms.

Let’s be real here for a moment: It takes a bit of force to shake a house. If the supernatural manifested consistently (every night at 3:02 a.m.) with enough force to shake a house, it wouldn’t be so commonly considered as being in the realm of mental instability. That house shook in reality, not in somebody’s mind. But the type of force that shakes a house should be identifiable and measurable and, with an opportunity to observe it with nightly regularity, shouldn’t be any mystery. If your house shakes at the same time every night, that’s not a job for an exorcist, it’s a job for a structural engineer—the kind that inspects homes and can work with the city to figure out what’s happening with your house and your area that could cause such an event.

My first recollection was of being in a house when an aircraft flew overhead and created a sonic boom. It was extremely similar. Someone else I mentioned it to asked me if there were any trains that ran nearby? I have no idea, because that wasn’t investigated (or, again, if it was, it wasn’t presented).

Is there a train track nearby? An Airforce base? Any city pipes or lines under the street? Do the neighbors feel this tremor as well? Did anyone think to ask them? If they do, we know we’re not looking for a house ghost but something area wide that is impacting the neighborhood at large. If not, do they have the same sort of historic foundations and structural issues a restored historic building would have, or are they rebuilt as entirely new?

This house is a “historic” home—which means that there are restrictions on the types of upgrades and renovations the owners can apply to the home, unlike other structures in the neighborhood that may not be labeled “historic.” This house shudder is a consistent event that lends itself perfectly to easy and accurate identification. But if this team called the city or checked area municipal facilities, talked to a single neighbor or called an engineer to do an evaluation (which isn’t very expensive), they never showed it. And so it’s fair to say that it appears they’re completely negligent when it comes to investigating the most simple and obvious sources of things that can, and do, impact houses in the way these owners described.

If a ghost is the cause of this house shaking, and it shakes every night at 3:02 a.m. on the dot, that would be the single most credible and easy-to-confirm ghost event ever identified. It’s open to investigation by anyone, because it’s an undeniable, predictable, measurable manifestation. The first step, though, would be to actually do the leg work and hire the necessary credentialed professionals, outside the psychic community, to demonstrate the event defies natural explanation. I can’t express enough how disappointing it was that they bailed on even trying to find a mundane cause of this event before calling in the paranormal "experts."

But the next event was just as much of a blown opportunity. The house “moans.” I’m not talking about a moan that can only be heard by audio taping in an empty room and then torturing the feedback on some machine that does nothing but distort the results until you get something akin to a moan. I find it interesting that in these voice recordings made in shows like this, the moment the “researchers” find any sound whatsoever, they go immediately to work on manipulating the ever-loving-heck out of the indiscernible noise until they get the result they want. Then they stop distorting the sound. It would appear that the sound they actually recorded isn’t what it was supposed to be. And all the variants that weren’t something that sounded like a voice saying whatever they wanted to hear, aren't “right” either. The only “right” result, it seems, is when they get it mastered exactly to a point where, if the listener turns their head to just the right angle and strains sufficiently, it says “get out” or “I am here” or some other such ghost movie dialogue. That’s how such sounds are “meant” to be perceived, and paranormal researchers know this because that’s precisely the sort of result they’re seeking.

So, they actually get three pretty solid “moans” on their audio/video tape. Impressive. Not just impressive, though, also somehow familiar. Familiar, as in I’ve-hear-this-sound-before familiar. My house makes this same sound. It happens whenever I forget to shut off the outside water, and then use water in the master bathroom. It’s a “sign” alright. It’s a sign I need to go back outside and shut off the outside water valve. What’s even funnier is that my house isn’t the only structure that makes this noise. At work, our office building makes the exact same “moan” on the sixth floor when the outside irrigation is running. Again, no exorcist required, just a certified plumber. Old pipes + restrictions on updates = a moaning house.

What else can I say? The other “evidence” is pretty obviously garbage:

“I feel a presence.”
“I saw a shadow.”
“I felt the room get cold.”
“I smelled perfume.”
“I heard a voice.”

I rely on my perceptions as much as the next person. But I would be the first one to admit that I’ve seen and heard things before that simply weren’t there. Ever seen a mirage on a hot road? Human perception is pretty good, but definitely imperfect. And the perceptions of a very frightened person are arguable even less reliable than those of a person that is not in a state of “you’re-in-grave-danger” brain chemical overload. Magicians and illusionists thrive on the fact that our brains can be easily misdirected. They do it on purpose for entertainment, but it can also happen quite naturally in mundane situations where nobody is actively trying to fool us.

Additionally, we don’t always understand what sorts of things might be in our environment that we’re completely unaware of. For example, electromagnetic energy can be found sometimes at high levels in homes with faulty or substandard electrical wiring—the sort of wiring you might find in an older home, especially one that has existed long enough to have a “history.” This energy has been demonstrated in controlled circumstances to cause anxiety and hallucinations—even (the perception of) OBEs. It affects your brain and your perception.

In my own home, after we’d moved in and lived there a few months, I decided to adjust the air vents in the ceiling to alter airflow in the house. When I got up close to the vent in our living room, I saw “something” blocking the vent. My husband removed the vent, and removed a bag. It was filled with potpourri. It turned out there was one of these bags of potpourri in every vent in our house. We had no idea.

We also have wild birds that crack bird seed on our roof, one especially likes to do this on our outside chimney. In the house, it sounds like something knocking/banging in our fireplace.

I have decorative “light catchers” in the trees in my backyard. They reflect lights and shimmers not just around the yard, but also in the house at different times of day. I put them in the yard, but my point is that reflections can create odd light and shadow, from across a street or from a neighbor’s yard.

There are no end to unusual things that can make smells, sights, sounds, and even feelings that we can’t immediately explain. But assuming a cause and then “investigating” only in ways that are most likely to give us the answers we prefer, rather than explain what is really happening, is something we have to work hard to avoid if we value a handle on reality over subjective prejudice.

If I want to know why my house shakes, and I call paranormal investigators, psychics and ghost energy specialists—and I don’t bother to call a structural engineer to come out and do an evaluation, no one should be surprised if I find out that ghosts are the cause of the events. I did everything in my power to ensure the results correlated to my desired outcome. I used only those tools prescribed to find a “ghost” and did not use any of the tools that might have found a more mundane (and reasonable) explanation—which might have proven to also be the accurate explanation.

While ghosts are like souls and souls relate to religion and god in the great majority of cases, and while credulity is something we examine at this blog, that’s not why I’m sharing this. I’m sharing this because a 14-year-old girl contacted the TV list recently to say that she wasn’t sure if there was a god or not. In order to find out, she read her Bible and prayed really hard. In the Bible she found a verse that said that whatever she prayed for, she’d get. So, she prayed for a “sign” from god—nothing spectacular, just something meaningful to her personally. She read and read and prayed and prayed and never got her sign. So now she thinks there is no god.

Then, just a few nights later, at the AE after-show dinner, I met someone who told me that when he was in elementary school, he can remember lying in bed, praying and crying, trying hard to believe because he was afraid that if he didn’t he’d burn in hell forever. He never got his sign, either. And eventually he told me, as he got older, the fear faded away.

I, personally, recall being about 15 when I prayed and prayed and read my Bible and begged in earnest for some “sign” to confirm god wanted me to believe and that he was there and willing to meet me halfway and help me, since I wanted so much to believe.

Unfortunately, for me, I got my sign. I won’t bore anyone with details (they’re at the ACA site in the Testimonials section if anyone cares), but I spent the next several years as a fundamentalist Christian, devoting my life in service to “Jesus.” Eventually I finally began to research the claims I’d accepted (most specifically from Josh McDowell) without examination, and I found I believed a load of indefensible false assertions. I went on as a theist, although not a Christian, for many more years, until I ultimately came to understand what I meant by “god” was just a metaphor. But for my years as a Christian, I can honestly say my life was not my own (as any good servant of the Lord will tell you—“not my will, but Thine…”) as I fervently devoted myself wholly to a fantasy. Years down the drain that I will never see again. Next time a theist tells you that if they’re wrong they lose nothing—feel free to tell them they’re wrong. If they’re devoted to their beliefs in the way the Bible demands for salvation, they’ve lost their very lives.

Meanwhile, the common thread in these tales is that we three (me, the girl, and the man at dinner) all used the methods prescribed by the church to figure out if what they were telling us to accept as true was valid. We let them stack the deck just as surely as the men and women on Paranormal State stacked the deck by not calling an engineer, but a psychic. We prayed and read the Bible and begged the very god we were supposed to be verifying. We used only those methods that would most likely yield the desired result of belief; and, in my case, I was willing to subjectively interpret just about anything as the “sign” I was seeking. Just like the homeowners on Paranormal State, we were motivated by fear. Unbelievers don’t pray and plead to the air and devote themselves to Bible study, to find answers upon which, in their minds, nothing rides. But stressed and terrified children do.

Children are convinced they’ll suffer horribly and eternally if they choose disbelief rather than belief. Then they’re told that the only way to know if it’s true is to read the Bible and pray and trust and dispel doubts. That is why, funny as many adult theists might seem, a part of my heart will always be reserved for compassion toward them because I understand firsthand the force it takes to brainwash a child and keep them that way long into adulthood. It’s quite a trick. You actually beat the child up so badly mentally that even when you’re not around, they keep beating themselves up for you.

I know that for every wingnut fundamentalist, someone’s life has been hijacked. Having lived it myself, I can’t help but feel a desire to see these people happy and well again. I want to give them back that understanding that every child deserves—that they are worthwhile and valuable as human beings—completely as they are, “imperfections” and all, without some supernatural fantasy to provide them with the sort of validation their parents and community should have provided them, but didn’t, because they participated in a religion that dehumanizes us and degrades us and teaches us to feel guilt and guile toward our very nature—with which there is nothing demonstrably wrong. Some of life is wonderful. Some of life is horrible. It’s a lot of different things rolled up into an existence that is part circumstance and part what we make it. To every child who has been or is being told that they need forgiveness for being human, that telling a lie or doubting justifies their condemnation and eternal torture, or that their will doesn’t matter, I say, “You are fine, just as you are; and if others can’t see that, it’s not your problem or your fault. The people trying to make you believe you’re nothing may have their hearts in the right place, but their heads are on completely backwards. Don’t let them tear you down and doubt yourself until you’ll trust anything except your own ability to make a judgment for yourself.”

I wrote back to the 14-year-old. I told her to consider something beyond the fact that she got no sign. I told her to ask herself what she would do if she wanted to learn about black holes. Would she sit in her room and think very hard about black holes and ask black holes to reveal themselves to her so she could know all about them? Or would she read about the data collected on black holes and the research and findings and evidence for them? What is the best way to find out if any Claim X is true? Certainly it’s not to immerse yourself only in the writings of those making the claim you’re trying to evaluate, and then repeatedly take part in a mental ritual where you pretend you believe the claim and keep beating yourself up for not believing it while you beg, tearfully, for any reason to accept it as true.

Surely anyone can see the problem with praying to the god whose existence I'm attempting to evaluate? Such a maneuver requires a presupposition that the god is actually there to begin with. That’s stacking the deck. That’s manipulating the sound byte results until I hear “get out,” or only having a psychic, not a plumber, assess the “moaning” in my house. It’s not a way to guarantee I'll find what I'm looking for; but it’s a incredibly good way to strongly and favorably influence the possibility of a positive outcome in finding that a god exists. When I “find god” under such circumstances, it should be no more of a surprise than the psychic finding that a spirit, and not a stressed water pipe, is causing the moan.


  1. These sorts of TV shows do the world a great disservice. I think it's great that you're bringing up this criticism. Maybe we can get a letter writing campaign or something.

    For the producers, the temptation is pretty great. They don't have to invest a lot of time and energy doing fake investigations and the subject is so sensational, it sells itself.

  2. "Surely anyone can see the problem with praying to the god whose existence I'm attempting to evaluate? Such a maneuver requires a presupposition that the god is actually there to begin with. That’s stacking the deck."

    Very well put Tracie. It seems incredible to me, whenever, after I have explained that I have looked into the issue and think that the god idea has no standing, they counter offer that if I "truly repent and ask Jesus Christ for forgiveness and to reveal himself" to me.

    They couldn't understand that to do what they ask, I had to accept their point in advance. I made the analogy of "if come in trying to claim a winning $1.000 lottery ticket, I tell you there is no record of your ticket in the system, and then you tell me "Tell you what, give me the money, and I'm sure the records will reappear."

    it is an ingenious ploy to circumvent the intellect.

    Todd Friel, who I heard recently in a clip with Hitchens does exactly the same thing, tries to pass off his faulty reasoning as a game of pretend to grab an emotional response (not that he succeeded with Hitchens)

  3. But... but... what about the trees?!

  4. Nice misrepresentation - The Pennsylvania State University Paranormal Research Society. Tries to give the impression of some academic repute. It is in fact a student organization at Penn State. It has no academic standing. It has as much credibility as the PSU Ultimate Frisbee Club.

  5. I'm fifteen and recently came out-- well, no. My parents outed me when they found my blog.

    I sent you guys an email (from Mariana Lynch) today with more detail. Just discovered your show and I love it.

    But the one thing I forgot to mention in my email is that I have two little brothers, one thirteen and one six. My six year old brother has autism and is probably what I'd consider to be moderate to high functioning-- he's got significant delay in a number of areas, but his cognitive profile is so uneven that it's hard to say where he's really at. From the reading I've done, it seems like that's pretty typical for kids with ASDs.

    Anyhow, I totally spaced about my brothers. It's difficult for me to accept how my parents view me just because I'm an atheist-- I take that back. It's probably mostly because I'm an outspoken advocate for secularism and the like.

    But I'm very conflicted about my thirteen year old brother. He's expressed concern with my parents' beliefs-- at first, it was that he just wasn't happy spending his life doing something he didn't want to do. I assumed that was the main reason.

    He's a smart kid, he really is... but he's not at all like myself. He shows his intelligence through his maturity and sociability; he typically hangs out with kids three or more years older than himself. I do enjoy the company of adults, but I especially express my intelligence through my pursuit of academic subjects.

    So I just went along with that. It's a good point for someone his age, you can't expect most thirteen year olds to abandon religion based on reading Dawkins or Hitchens or whatever.

    We talk a lot and I watch quite a bit of YouTube in front of him. I really thought he didn't care either way, but he began to show some interest. My parents took him out of public school a few months ago because he got caught having girlfriends (heaven forbid, a teenage boy wants to date) and just did stupid stuff that teenagers do.

    So now he goes part-time with other homeschoolers. And guess what? Every other kid in his class is devoutly religious and have been homeschooled their entire lives. For the most part, they are sheltered and immature, and my brother has a difficult time with it. It's not fair for him.

    He was telling me a story about how one of his classmates was talking about watching "awesome creationist videos with people like Kent Hovind." Now, my brother and I had been going through Thuderf00t's "why do people laugh at creationists?" videos, one of them featuring Kent Hovind... my brother said he started laughing. The other kids asked him why, and he said "nothing, I just thought of something funny." Already learning to keep his mouth shut...

    Two other incidents have come up, one with my brother expressing interest in reading Richard Dawkins, another where I slipped some kind of atheist joke (one of his buddies mentioned he was an atheist, thought it was safe to do so) around his Catholic friend. I felt bad-- I didn't know he was a theist. He asked, "you really don't believe in God?" I was like, "uh..."

    To my surprise, my brother said he was "nothing" and "didn't believe in God."

    These incidents, in addition to some discussions we've had, have shown me that he's a bit more serious than I thought.

    He hasn't figured out to keep his mouth shut around my parents, though, and I'm in trouble. They said I am not permitted to watch "atheistic videos" around him. That he needs a chance to decide, and that his whole support system is in the church.

    Their last point really hit me, though: he's not allowed to have "worldly" friends. He's only thirteen and is still dependent on my parents' friends for support, not his own. I don't want to ruin all this for him, as damaging as I think their faith is.

    Would it be better to leave it alone? At thirteen, and with his priorities, should I stand by and let him be indoctrinated for the sake of a community? I don't know if, at this point, nonbelief is more important than the support he has.

    He has a Bible study every Thursday, goes door-to-door on weekends (you guessed it, my family are JWs) and attends church twice a week with my parents.

    I'm at a loss.

  6. @Tracieh

    Just to add enlightenment to one detail of your very fine post.

    As an amateur historian who knows enough about the Civil War know when to defer to my mom when the details are in question, I think I can point out that Gettysburg does indeed have railroads going through it.

    (Ok, a quick trip to google maps can tell you that also).

    One of the early reverses for the Confederate army was when the Union army wiped out almost an entire brigade hiding in a terrain feature called the "railroad cut", where a bed for a railroad had been dug through a hill, and turned into a killing ground.

    However, there are plenty of railroads going through Gettysburg now.


    Keep in mind, that this town is pretty small, so a train of any size running on any of the tracks there would be noticed through much of the town.

  7. Caffeine:

    >It seems incredible to me, whenever, after I have explained that I have looked into the issue and think that the god idea has no standing, they counter offer that if I "truly repent and ask Jesus Christ for forgiveness and to reveal himself" to me.

    I can actually go you one better. I’ve had, more than once (and at least once with a Muslim), theists tell me that I should ask god to reveal himself (or read the Koran) to see if god is really there. But additionally, I was told that when I do so, I have to “really believe.” So, if you don’t believe in god, he’ll show himself to you if you ask, but first you have to believe. And they don’t see the dilemma there. I can’t explain it any more than you can.


    >They said I am not permitted to watch "atheistic videos" around him. That he needs a chance to decide…

    This is stacking the deck. He needs a chance to decide, but he needs to only be exposed to one side of the issue before he makes his “decision.” This is my main complaint about most religious homeschool and groups like Amish. If you cloister a person (child or not) from information, then their “decision” is not a valid decision. It’s no different than a drug company neglecting to label their product with proper side effect warnings. How can I make an informed decision to use or not use a pharmaceutical if the company hides some of the information that would impact my decision. In fact, the company in this case would be hiding the information _because_ they recognize it would impact my decision. Is that ethical? Isn’t holding back data that you know would influence someone’s decision deceitful? Isn’t that nothing more than a lie of omission?

    Your parents, by cloistering your brother and forbidding anyone they have control over to allow him to examine all of his options are endorsing deceit as a tool to get what they want. As long as they don’t condemn others for being deceitful, and admit they think deceitful actions are OK with them, at least their consistent. But why do I suppose they’re not OK with that? I’m guessing it’s only OK if their lying on behalf of their religious goals, and not for anything else. Am I right, that outside of their use of lying, they would normally condemn lying as wrong?

    Meanwhile the question of what you should do is extremely difficult. While you are minors, your parents have extreme control over you simply due to law. Practically speaking, they can’t force you to not talk to your brother about atheism. But they sure can make life hell for you and him if you don’t do what they command. Before I became a Christian, I stopped going to church for a time. My mother was not in agreement with this, but I told her this: I have decided not to follow Christianity. “You’re saying I’m not mature enough to decide for myself whether or not to follow Christianity. As long as you force me to go to church, I will take that as a cue from you that I am unable to make such a decision for myself, and I will in good conscience, in that case, not make any decisions about it.”

    In other words, you can force me to go to church, but that’s a sign I’m not able to decide for myself. And if I can’t decide for myself in your opinion, then I won’t decide (I won’t become a Christian because, according to your actions [in deciding for me], I’m not competent to make that decision for myself).

    While I don’t recommend necessarily that your brother should use this tactic on your parents, you might point out to him that your parents decision to “decide for him” (basically), should clue him in that they are admitting that they don’t believe he has the competence to make this decision for himself. And so, he might hold off on even considering becoming a Christian until he sees your parents really do show him that they believe he’s able to make his own decision (which means they would respect his decision even if it doesn’t align with what they would want)—by actually letting him make his own decisions about what information he needs to investigate and consider in order to make a valid and informed decision on what he thinks about religion.

    As far as I can tell, this does not violate your parents’ request that you not discuss atheism with him. And it addresses the issue of pressure with your brother because it allows him to set the decision aside and not concern himself with it until his parents are ready to respect his choices as his own. If they don’t accept he can make his own choices, then they cannot believe that, if he decides to become a Christian, that his decision could possibly be valid.

    Does that make sense?

    Thanks for writing. I’ll look for your e-mail as well.


    THANKS for that! I work near a track, and not all trains are equal. Some are very small and speedy passenger trains, others are long and trudging transport trains for heavy product. And, again, as a historic home, it may not be as solidly built as modern homes. I appreciate your input and investigative work! You did in a few minutes on the Internet what a team of "researchers" couldn't do at all. ;-)

  8. You'll never ever see a reputable ghost investigation show. Why? Because no one would watch it? Why? Because it'd just be a bunch of rational people discovering where noises are actually coming from. Instead you get shows like Ghost Hunters, who are a bunch of plumbers from New England who found some money and bought some fancy stuff and walk around in houses filming themselves in night vision going "What was that?" "Did you see that?". A show that ACTUALLY investigated "hauntings" in any useful way simply wouldn't garner the viewers the television station would want to get from such a show. It'd just turn into "this old house" or "this week in carbon monoxide leaks".

  9. Tracie, if you really want to be disgusted check out a show on A&E called Psychic Kids. Good luck sitting through one episode.

  10. Sparrow:

    >"this week in carbon monoxide leaks".

    This made me laugh. I actually would like to do a followup program that investigates the exact same "hot spots" visited by GH or PS to see what is found by skeptics. But you're right, it would basically be footage of "1:31 a.m., nothing much happening, still."


    I've seen it. You're right. It does disgust me.

  11. I see maddogdelta beat me to it, but to be more specific, yes, a Google search reveals that the name of the inn is the Farnsworth House, the address is 401 Baltimore Street in Gettysburg, and they are indeed only several blocks away from railroad tracks.


  12. tracieh: "I can actually go you one better. I’ve had, more than once (and at least once with a Muslim), theists tell me that I should ask god to reveal himself (or read the Koran) to see if god is really there. But additionally, I was told that when I do so, I have to “really believe.” So, if you don’t believe in god, he’ll show himself to you if you ask, but first you have to believe. And they don’t see the dilemma there. I can’t explain it any more than you can."The moment I read this I was reminded of something similar that's happened several times to me. It has nothing to do with religion but I think it makes a pretty good analogy.

    I'm Mexican(an actual Mexican, I don't just mean a North American of Mexican extraction) and I've never really been a fan of our traditional food. I'm not referring to the well-known examples of Mexican cuisine: tacos, tostadas and the like; or what Taco Bell makes people believe are examples of Mexican cuisine(what the hell is an "Enchirrito"?); but rather the more, shall we say, "obscure" of our courses. My mother and her sisters, though, have made it their mission to make me sample as many weird dishes as they can. I won't bore you with the details, but if you ever encounter something called a "nopal" in your meal, stay away from it. It's like biting into a raw green bean dipped in Krazy Glue.

    My point is, every time I'm invited to eat something "traditional," usually all it takes is one look at the plate for a "Thanks, but no, thanks" to leave my lips, prompting a timeless phrase along the lines of "because I say so" and "it's for your own good" being thrown back at me: "but you haven't even tried it yet." Well, crap. They got me. In all fairness, how can I say I don't like it when I hadn't tasted it?. Being the annoying, little smart-ass I am, I finally came up with a trump card, or so I thought. "No se me antoja" was my answer. Roughly translated means "it doesn't appeal to me" or "I don't feel like trying/doing/tasting that." That was it!, I wasn't making a baseless judgement about the taste of the food, I was simply saying I found it so unappealing that I didn't want to try it in the first place. Brilliant.

    Much to my surprise, the adults didn't seem to quite grasp the distinction. I'd say I didn't really feel like trying mole(MOH-leh; gray, bland chicken legs covered in a weird, thick, dark sauce that would be tasty were it not dumped on boiled poultry) and they'd say "but you haven't tried it yet." After a few times, I finally snapped and started a mini-argument: "you understand what I'm saying, right? I didn't say I didn't like it, I said I didn't want to try it. You used to ask me to try it before deciding if I liked it or not. You're now asking me to TRY it... before deciding whether or not I want to TRY it!."

    I get a similar feeling of frustration, only times ten, whenever I'm asked to hit my knees and pray so god will reveal himself to me. "But you have to REALLY believe that he's there, if you do it cynically, it won't happen." Well, isn't that special?. You mean that if I go out and do enough tequila shots while hitting myself with a hammer in the head until enough neurons have died to make me believe it's true... then I'll see that is true?. Awesome.

    I didn't really add much to the conversation so I'll leave it at that. =D Just one more thing to believers: if you really want me to hit my knees and talk to the dude, first you need to give a really good reason to believe he's there in the first place.

  13. @ Tracieh:

    Thanks so much.

    What you've said is absolutely true and they have said it themselves.

    When they said that he "needed a chance to decide without someone trying to influence him" I was like, wtf?

    I asked them how he was supposed to make an informed decision with knowledge from only one group. I said that he's not free from influence if you're influencing him, lol.

    They flat out said that "he's thirteen and isn't mature enough to make a life-changing decision like that."

    I lost that argument because I didn't know how to counter it. I know it's completely wrong and their lack of confidence in their son's intellectual competence deeply disturbed me, but what can I say to that?

    They think my brother is immature, stupid and untrustworthy for doing stuff most teenagers are allowed to do. He can't even have a MySpace account because he likes to date. It really bothers me.

    My dad has some really nasty tricks he uses. It gets to a point where he says "if you're as smart as you think you are, why do you do x?" Sometimes he gets me so worked up that I'm physically upset and then he makes fun of me for it.

    I can't stand some of the things he says to me about my character, completely based on the fact that I'm an atheist. But what they're doing to my brother makes me angrier.

  14. Myna:

    I am sending you a personal reply via e-mail. I got your note on the TV list.

    Thanks for contacting us.

  15. @Myrna
    I would say to weight the pragmatic value of such things. I'm sure you parents won't keep your brother isolated forever and I'm sure if secular humanism and atheism are intellectually compelling options (Or more intellectually compelling that being a Jehovah's Witness) he will realise it later just as you did.

  16. I'd like to see more done with sleep paralysis -- or at least I'd like to see the research on the phenomenon more publicized (like that Harvard study). The studies provide a fascinating look at how structures of the brain, or events in the brain, can manifest themselves in some kind of allegorical, narrative form, like a dream. It's a kind of hyper-complex version of pareidolia.

    A few recent studies, like one at the Max Planck Institute, have shown how altruistic behavior is hardwired in both human and chimpanzee brains. Such studies suggest that morality isn't something handed down from on high, but is something we're born with. Couple that with some of the work done in psychology about how structures of the brain are reflected in narrative forms, like writing and dreams, and you're heading into some interesting territory.

    If sleep paralysis is a form of hyper-pareidolia, a kind of allegorical, narrative manifestation of something going on in the brain, it could provide a window into how hardwired altruistic behaviors become externally allegorized in other narrative forms, like myths and scriptures. Such work could show how pre-scientific people could logically end up mistaking themselves for an external, "god in the gaps"-type stand-in offering moral decrees, when those decrees were always already part of being human.


PLEASE NOTE: The Atheist Experience has moved to a new location, and this blog is now closed to comments. To participate in future discussions, please visit http://www.freethoughtblogs.com/axp.

This blog encourages believers who disagree with us to comment. However, anonymous comments are disallowed to weed out cowardly flamers who hide behind anonymity. Commenters will only be banned when they've demonstrated they're nothing more than trolls whose behavior is intentionally offensive to the blog's readership.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.